Editorial:The New 12 Gauge Premium Autoloader Dilemma

They are all new, or reasonably new. They are all expensive, and all of them have extremely recognizable brand names. They have all been announced with their fair share of bravado, chutzpah, and perhaps eccentric wackiness contingent on your point of view. They have been relentlessly marketed to both Cro-Magnon man and the Aristocrat. They have been presented as dinosaur killers, they all are either claimed to be “the best” or at least the best at something. More than one is the fastest-cycling, more than one is the softest-shooting, most all of them are the most reliable, and more than one is offered only in highly polished plastic made by old world craftsmen.

Many are lightweight; all will lighten your wallet. Most are available in 3-1/2 inch chambers, most also claim to cycle what has long been considered a twenty gauge low brass target load for various and sundry reasons. Very few have wood stocks at all, but some have a plastic picture of pretty wood stuck to a piece of not so pretty wood beneath. Not only are they often presented as recoiless wonders, they recoil so very little that they all come with space-age, medically engineered, aerospace designed recoil pads just to be sure. Not one has a steel receiver, although there are pieces of steel generally somewhere lurking inside. Some claim to have written warranties, some don't. Many don't have choke tubes that interchange with previous models, so you can't always use the choke tubes you already have. Many of them have “self-cleaning actions,” but also come with owner's manuals telling you how to clean all the self-cleaning stuff. Here's an unorthodox look at autoloaders of 2011.


The Beretta 391 Urika II almost didn't get listed, as it isn't all that new. There are a couple reasons for its inclusion. It appears to be the last of the “300 series” Beretta's, the basic platform of which has been extended and copied ever since the Beretta 300 appeared back before electricity, or in the form of the AL-1 somewhere around 1969. That is, apparently, when the 500 years of passion in gas-operated aluminum shotguns started. It is more like forty years of experience with gas autoloaders, but rounding it off to 500 years makes it sound a bit better. One qualified, independent view of reliability and durability is discussed here: http://randywakeman.com/Most_Reliable_Autoloading_Shotgun.htm . That little 100 million shell (or so) field test came out in favor of the predecessor to this model, the 390, and well as the top choice, the Benelli Montefeltro.

Those that appreciate the 391 will quickly point up that it is the first choice among active target shooters today by a large amount, with the rest of the avid clays shooters opting for vertical doubles. Those that don't appreciate the 391 quite as deeply will cite the early teething problems such as bad recoil buffers, cracked gas pistons, the shell lifter problems never fully resolved, and the incomprehensible design of the forearm nut as the Rubik's Cube of autoloading shotgun features. In some forms, like the “Teknys,” the 391 has had the dubious distinction of making the $2000 mass-produced autoloading shotgun a reality. Though not a leap ahead compared to the 390 it replaced, it has been quite a successful model.

Jim, who uses the pen name of "Seamus O' Caiside," has thought enough of his fellow shooter and the A391 to put it all down in a book for us: http://randywakeman.com/HopeForBeretta391Lovers.htm . Jim's book can be the difference between total satisfaction with the 391 and total disappointment. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that the 391 was never really perfected and that as it has been displaced with newer models attention to the 391 slowed in concert, or perhaps ceased. The vast majority of them are extremely competent gas guns, though, and the 391 remains in the opinion of many the consummate clays machine though an individual specimen may require some tweaking or a visit to Cole Gunsmithing.


The Beretta A391 Xtrema is inexplicably named after the 391, though the gas action of the Xtrema has little to do with the 300 Beretta series, actually more of a take-off on the Franchi 912 VarioMax 3-1/2 inch model, a gun that was abruptly discontinued coinciding with the launch of the Xtrema. The original Xtrema had enough nagging problems to generate the Xtrema II with an improved trigger in short order. The Xtrema II is notable as one of the first “any load any time” do it all type of shotgun attempts, though it is far more at home in the duck blind than chasing pheasants or breaking clays. The “rotating bolt” gets some press, though that was popularized long ago in the 1947 AK-47, with the Saiga-12 of the early 1990s as the rotating bolt gas autoloading shotgun directly attributed to the AK-47. The rotating bolt takes stress off of the receiver, so now the receiver can be made cheaply or “out of paper,” as a friend likes to put it. Beretta has not introduced a truly bad design under its own name in autoloading shotguns in recent memory. It is perhaps the Xtrema more than any other gun that gave rise to the now perpetual question, “Do I Want a Kick-Off or Don't I?” The Xtrema II today competes with many, many competent guns for a seat in the goose pit: you can look at the A400 as a more versatile rendition of the already versatile Xtrema II if you like. That isn't all that far off the mark.


The A400, in my opinion, is a very clever design. Cheap to make compared to its predecessors, like the A391 Urika 2, it still extends the notion of the shoot-everything autoloader, whether that notion is a good one or not. Despite the obvious economy of manufacture, the liberal use of “heavy polymer” and the avoidance of high-grade walnut, the A400 #J4OUY retails for a breathtaking $1725.00, with street price around $1600. Yet, it is an impressive gun though perhaps not quite as impressive as its retail price suggests.

The bolt speed in the A400 would be considered excessive in many designs, but the KO3 backstop for the bolt appears to have addressed that potential issue competently. The fast bolt speed is what enables the use of mouse loads without problem. Why exactly you might want to use whimpy 20 gauge target loads out of a 3-1/2 inch dinosaur killing 12 gauge escapes me. But the A400 does function as promised with 7/8 oz. loads, although when it comes to Xtrema II, Urika II, and many, many other models . . . cycling 7/8 oz. is far from unheard of, and 1 oz. loads rarely give troubles.


Of all the new 12 gauge autoloaders introduced thus far, the Benelli Vinci has been the most satisfying hunting gun to me. One thing I've often mentioned in formal reviews, which this editorial is decidedly not, is this: Whether you say you love something or whether you say you hate it, you are always absolutely 100% right.

As the most innovative, novel, and perhaps “unusual” of the current crop of premium autoloaders, Benelli essentially got it right the first time. There has been so little in the way of reported problems that I don't think a “Vinci II” is in the offing anytime soon. Although I mentioned “not one has a steel receiver” in the introductory comments, the Vinci actually does have one, though perhaps not in the conventional sense. The barrel and receiver are integral and they are both steel. The barrel of the Vinci is essentially the firearm. It doesn't make barrel swapping economical, but then again barrel swapping is no longer remotely an economical undertaking regardless of any of the models mentioned here. The Vinci is among the most affordable of the new models, surprising to say the least, and as close to “set it and forget it” as can be had in an autoloader today.


What I'm about to say might surprise you, but I think the Versa Max is the best autoloading shotgun design Remington has ever offered. That said, all the credit for the disastrous, fumbling roll-out of the Versa Max goes to Cerberus Capital Management-- who else? Horribly misrepresented, slow in coming out, then followed with a virtually instant safety recall right after the first examples were shipped . . . it is really hard to pin that type of incompetence on Beretta, Benelli, Browning, or Al Gore. When I first discussed the Versa Max with Chuck Hawks, proprietor of Guns & Shooting Online, his reaction was instant: “Great. Just what the world needs, another overpriced ugly autoloader.” Alright, Chuck, there is that.

More to the point, though, is what the “Remington brand” has long needed (regardless of what capital management company owns them) is a modern autoloader that works and is competitive. Part of the human condition is that we are perpetually mesmerized, simonized, and other-wised by brand names. It is goofy, if not weird. We trip all over ourselves with nicknames for brands and tools, we like it when other people wear hats with the same logo, we take comfort when other people use what we use, and we associate ourselves with brands of beer, automobiles, and television sets. We just can't contain ourselves. We also like to throw in the “Made In America” mantra where convenient, though that term is now just another marketing term. Those more aware of things know that it was Remington that closed H & R, Marlin, and Bushmaster and continues to import and sell Chinese copies of the 870 against itself. If you enjoy being brand-washed, you might be better off not knowing these things.

The Versa Max is a superb design. It should be, as it is the same basic action is the Benelli M-4. It is so obvious, how could anyone miss it? Perhaps the Beretta organization is wondering right now why they ignored what they already had for the sporting market, but if you check the shotguns already mentioned . . . it isn't like Beretta offers only one model of autoloader. You have three premium autoloading actions under the Beretta alone, the entire Benelli line, and more offerings under the Stoeger and Franchi names all from the same company. As is you can already buy an M-4 for yourself but only tactical models are offered.

So, yes, the Versa Max is a superb design and already well-proven by the success of the M-4. As for the always-entertaining recoil claims, of course the Versa Max is no kicker. It is about an eight pounder, far heavier than any of the latest autoloaders from Vinci to Maxus to A400. Heavy gas guns don't kick much, so to manage to get it to kick would be an unlikely achievement. Despite its clumsy introduction and recall along with a few other little quality control and machining problems, it is fundamentally a very good design and should be around for a very long time if a few of the incidentals can be cleaned up a bit.


The Browning Maxus was a bit on the slow side to come out as well, but it wouldn't be the first time the folks at Herstal Group weren't ahead of their own predictions. By now, I've tested three Maxus examples with their new walnut Sporting Clays model on the way. Of the three, the only issue I could find was a cosmetic one: the recoil pad on a Stalker model wasn't properly ground. A minor issue, if I had kept that specific example I would have just replaced the pad. All of the Maxus models I tested cycled everything down to the cheap, light, “Winchester Super Speed” promo shells. Not strongly, not well, but no jams. That's better than they were supposed to do, though, with one oz. the stated limit. With one ounce or better loads, they all worked superbly right out of the box. As with the last twenty or so Browning autoloaders and pumps I've evaluated, the triggers were on the heavy side. For me, a trigger job is requisite on a Browning repeater these days, though others feel they are good enough as is. There have been a couple of early issues not experienced by me but reported nevertheless. A couple of folks have noted trigger reset issues; a replacement spring installed by Browning was the fix. There has been at least one or two cracked gas pistons that I'm aware of, not the entire piston as was the case in some Beretta 391 examples, but a snapped spring inside the piston. Those were replaced at no charge by Browning Customer Service. Again, neither are issues I have experienced or witnessed, but there have been a couple of isolated incidents.

The Browning Maxus is the softest-shooting of the newer autoloaders with target loads. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, for the Browning Gold series has long been universally regarded as one of the softest shooting autoloaders, softer than similarly weighted Beretta models. None of the shotguns touched upon here is remotely a kicker, compared to a fixed breech gun of similar weight.

What is an easy thing for me to say is that, in terms of value, the Maxus is an astonishingly good one. While I'm quick to admit that the price of a shotgun for a reasonably active hunter shooter is inconsequential compared to the cost of everything that goes along with it, three inch Maxus Stalker models can be had for $950 or so, with the current bonus of $75 of free ammo from Browning. The 3-1/2 inch models start about a hundred bucks more and the latest Maxus, the Sporting Clays Walnut that has some truly high-grade walnut hits around $1450 and is, easily, the best-looking of the new crop of autoloaders. The walnut and polished blue Maxus Hunter 3 inch, also a lokker, is about $1100. Time change, I didn't envision the day when someone would buying a new Browning because he didn't feel like paying the cost of entry for a Remington and so forth, but that's what the numbers are.


I really appreciate the approach of Bruce Buck of “Technoid” renown. Bruce has been a tireless promoter of gas autoloaders in general, suggesting that if you try them you'll be surprised at the end of a busy shooting day. Aside from likely selling more Breakfree CLP and mainsprings for gas guns than anyone on the planet, Mr. Buck has often referred to gas guns as sheep: “they know when they are alone and they don't like it.” It is good to have a sense of humor when it comes to gas autoloaders: marketing departments certainly do.

Gas guns, as a class, are dirty. The particulate matter in propellant gases ensures that you'll need to clean your gas gun, it just goes with the territory. Some function surprisingly well and long when caked with crud, but in the case of some folks it takes far longer to carp about cleaning than to actually do it. If immunity from cleaning gas pistons is what you seek, you might not want to dismiss a Benelli or a nice A-5. Bruce Buck used to say that Benelli's might work under water. Bruce corrected that stance for me at the latest SHOT show saying, with a twinkle in his eye, “They do work under water.”

If you want to be satisfied with your purchase, there are a few effective countermeasures you can deploy against the often soul-less and shameless ad brags. None of these guns are limited edition, rare, or bespoke guns, all are in circulation. For the same reason you try on a pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, or a jacket before you buy, for the same reason you take a test drive in a car, take the time to shoot an example of what you are considering buying.

Shims and spacers can be helpful, but they only go so far. They aren't going to change the safety position or the trigger guard for you, they aren't going to make the stock or forearm thinner or wider, they aren't going to change the shape of the pistol grip for you. Just holding a gun up can be helpful, but it cannot tell the full tale anymore than just holding up a suit is going to tell you how it feels to wear it a while.

Balance, swing, responsiveness, felt recoil . . . these are all subjective, quite individual things. And, they all combine to tell you whether you like one model more than the other. Whether you say you like it or say you hate it, you're always right. The gang at your local shooting club will be happy to help, likely a bit happier to help if you buy a pizza or pick up the tab for lunch. Picking up a tab for lunch may be a much better investment than buying what you discover you really don't care for.

As they are all mass-produced guns, there might be that “something” that irks you. When people ask how reliable a gun is, they generally really don't care. What they do care about is how reliable their gun might be, but past performance is not indicative of future results and all that. Just like the eternal question, “Will that model cycle with my reloads?” there is no answer beyond some will, some won't. No manufacturer tests a gun with “our” reloads-- they have never so much as seen them. Guns today seem more tolerant of odd shells than before, but some reloads in this area don't really look like shotgun shells at all.

With Beretta, if you get a good one you will of course be happy. I've had it both ways. Rather than joining the growing throng of “I've had it for six years and it never did work right” you're likely better off just sending it off to Cole Gunsmithing and getting it addressed properly from the start. Beretta never has had a good customer service department, but now they have given up the pretense, using “Service Centers” instead of factory service. Thankfully, Cole Gunsmithing is one of them.

With Benelli and Browning, I've had far better results. Within reason, Benelli will do a trigger job for you and Browning, while having no written warranty like Ruger and many others, does a good job standing behind their products. In any case, you're far better completely going through your gun and identifying any rough areas today than waiting nine months so you can tell your friends that a gun ruined your hunt.

Back to Bruce Buck and his flock of sheep. There are serious shotgunners, whacky shotgunners, and the best of both worlds-- the delightfully seriously whacky ones. Doubling or pairing of gas guns sometimes makes good sense, particularly on the “hunt or shoot of a lifetime.” I've always carried a duplicate or a back-up overseas, in Canada, Argentina, or out of state. It all depends how important that event or hunt is to you. Avoiding the lonely gas gun syndrome isn't that bad of an idea, depending on circumstances.


Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

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